Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Adding Photos without Provenance to the Memories

Provenance is the most important factor in definitely identifying old photos, especially very early photos from the mid-1800s. Provenance is defined as a record of ownership of a work of art, photograph or antique that is used a guide in determining the authenticity of quality. In short, you have to be able to determine the history of the photograph. My daughter Amy has outlined this issue very specifically in a blog post about a photo that has been circulating for years with claims that it represents one of our distant ancestors. Her outline comes from a blog post on TheAncestorFiles blog entitled, "Poor John Tanner."
As noted in my analysis of the possible photograph of John Tanner's relative-by-marriage Samuel Shepherd, a picture needs to meet several tests:
  • What is the provenance of the picture? (Who owns it and why? What is the chain of ownership?)
  • Is there an identification included with the picture? Who made it?
  • Is the technology appropriate to the time it was supposed to have been taken?
  • Were there daguerreotypists or photographers operating in the area at the time?
  • Any family resemblances?
  • Do the ages of the people in the photograph seem to be accurate?
  • What can the clothing tell us about when the picture was taken?
  • What other details in the picture help locate the picture and identify the subjects?
We run into the problem from time to time with the photos that are uploaded to the Memories section of the website. We are almost continually involved in controversial photo claims for our ancestor John Tanner. This is in part due to the huge number of his descendants and fact that a number of books have been published about his life. One interesting fact about the alleged photos circulating is that they cannot all be possibly accurate. I hesitate to re-publish either of the alleged photos because of their unwarranted proliferation. Instead, I will refer you to the extensive writing on the subject by my daughter in TheAncestorFiles blog. She has an index to her blog posts by the name of the ancestor so it is easy to find all of the posts on John Tanner.

Mis-identified photos will continue to be problem that will grow as more and more photos are uploaded to the Memories section of the website. For example, right now, John Tanner (b. 1778, d. 1850) has 17 photos. four of them are copies of the same disputed photo showing a family group and two are copies of another disputed photo. If you are interested, you can view John Tanner's Memories with his ID number, MMM9-MM1. You might also need to be aware that he has possible duplicates that cannot be merged at this time and that the duplicate has a total of 165 memories including two more copies of the first disputed photograph (actually a daguerreotype) and an original song recorded about him.

One of the realities of the Internet is that photos and other items can be spread almost instantaneously without any supporting validation at all. Their proliferation creates a new "reality" where a photo or story becomes so prevalent that it is accepted as true without substantiation. As we have found, it is virtually impossible to correct such a spread once it begins. This is especially true when we have no way to delete or edit photos or other items uploaded to the Memories section.


  1. One should be able to add a comment on a photo when things like this happen, thanks for your article.

    1. You can add comments to the photos, the problem is that the comments just get ignored.